Shannon Jaeger

Testimonial: Creating the Environment for Courageous Inclusion

I have been with Lehigh for almost 10 years and in various capacities. I currently serve as Director of Volunteer Engagement within Development and Alumni Relations. This past summer, with COVID forcing us to work differently, coupled with the murder of George Floyd, our department had the ability to assign someone to anti-racist work. Because of my background in community organizing and activism I was chosen, and now half of my role is dedicated to organizing our department, providing learning opportunities, and making resources available for my teammates. I knew that to be effective, I needed to first do some work of my own by tapping into the world of knowledge, expertise, and work already available. I felt encouraged to think about practical applications for the theories of which I was aware. I enrolled in this program as a way to further my learning and perhaps take away the ability to demonstrate theory to practice. 

When I took on this new role there was a question about whether a white woman should take on this work. For me, that was exactly who should be doing it. For too long, the burden of anti-racist work has been shouldered by communities of color, and we cannot continue to tax our BIPOC - and in this instance, our Black - community members and expect that we can retraumatize, exhaust, and tokenize those with lived experience. Understanding my role as a white woman was the first step. Finding a program that would allow me to be vulnerable and access that space for myself was the second and I found it with this program.

Dr. Outing is a great teacher, providing an open platform that made people feel very comfortable. There was a lot of vulnerability in this program that I haven’t seen in others. It brought together both the personal and the professional, and that balance is so important in diversity work because you are not working from a place of perfection. The intention is to be lifelong learners, never completely able to eliminate our biases, but be vulnerable enough to recognize them and prevent them from causing or supporting systems that are unsafe and undignified. 

The program didn’t feel like other trainings because it was so personal. It helped me to be comfortable enough with myself to share my story and where I have fumbled. Donald and the rest of the cohort modeled and encouraged it. I recently gave a presentation and was able to create a safe and comfortable environment because of that experience. 

As professionals in academia we are accustomed to identifying as progressive, thoughtful, and inclusive. I’ve had those moments when I thought, “not me, I’M not racist. “ But it’s not about just saying you are not racist. Understanding diversity and inclusion goes beyond being educated or progressive. You have to explore how you have benefitted from a white supremacist society. To put theory into practice here at Lehigh, as a community member and a white woman, I have a responsibility to examine myself before bringing others along on the lifelong learning continuum. I have to be able to say it out loud. A few years ago I would not have been able to do that. I believed I was doing the right thing and didn’t need a program like this. But my attitude has shifted. 

The program gives you an opportunity to lay personal experiences and missteps and biases out, to share the parts of yourself that have a great deal more to learn and how to improve interactions in the future. That was missing from other programs. They were never about me looking at my bias. This is particularly helpful in the development and engagement profession — I needed to do the work internally so I could better relate to constituents, understand identities and experiences, and have fruitful conversations. 

Those of us who completed the program are now accustomed to self-examination and being able to communicate that to someone else. My cohort shared stories and experiences, and they helped me to think about my past behavior. That was just as important as the instruction itself. We all got to know each other and became a close-knit group because we shared very personal things that made us stop and think differently. It’s hard to have those honest, vulnerable conversations. But Dr. Outing ensured our comfort as we had them.

One of the biggest takeaways is in how I facilitate trainings. It is not my job to teach. I am here to ensure psychological safety as we dive into these topics. That’s not easy in the age of COVID where everything has to be done virtually. Inclusion is best done in person. But Dr. Outing made us feel so comfortable, and that is something I am now bringing to my team. 

Trying to make people feel included is a lifelong learning process. Compassion fatigue is a very real risk, and the work can be lonely. The problems seem unsolvable and the work is not meant to have a conclusion. But you can be part of the network of solutionaries and critical thinkers: compassionate and brilliant professionals who think about how to be even more inclusive, to bring others into the fold, and to provide resources. I need a solid network of people who understand the charge and are passionate about it. That is the real value of this program: it starts with the individual and builds support to continue the work.